In Rick Santorum, Sean Duffy and every other commentator on cable news, there is a politician. More importantly, there is content. The outrage cycle is just a part of that content, and as long as there is more content, everyone is happy. Duffy, formerly of “The Real World” fame, was elected as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave to Congress, where he remained for almost ten years until resigning in September of 2019.
After, he opted to head where most former politicians do — cable news. He made his CNN debut in October 2019 by smearing an Iraq war veteran with a Purple Heart — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — as someone with possible dual loyalties toward the Ukraine. Duffy’s shameless guesswork predictably resulted in outrage, and much of it was justified. Condemnation reigned down from members of the Republican leadership like Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on Duffy’s idea.
There was another kind of condemnation that was far more interesting. CNN’s Brianna Keilar went out of her way to push back on anti-immigrant bigotry — a good thing, no doubt. She was not the only CNN anchor to do this; others went out of their way to prove that Duffy’s ideas were reprehensible, and that kind of behavior and rhetoric had no place in public discourse.
These stances may have had no place in the discourse; however, that didn’t stop CNN from handing Duffy an obscene contract worth countless millions for exactly that rhetoric and behavior. Duffy backed the Muslim Ban and was hired with an entire history of problematic actions. And yet, CNN is now surprised he is a bigot. Was the entire hiring department recently hit over the head with a two-by-four?
Duffy is a more egregious offender than most, but he is by no means alone. The entire Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman cycle with him is almost identical to the conflict between former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and the Parkland teenagers in early 2018. The Parkland students were asking for gun safety laws, and Rick Santorum said that students from the high school should learn CPR instead of marching. Of course, there was outrage — there were panelists who were offended and hosts who took shots at Santorum. However, Santorum behaving like this should not have surprised anyone actually paying attention to his long career.
Santorum wrote a book in 2006 that angrily denounced what he saw as “radical feminists” undermining families among other claims that would make Don Draper blush as far as women in the workplace are concerned. Again: Here is a guy with a history of making outlandish comments, and here is CNN ready and willing to put him back on your TV.
Santorum will continue to say idiotic things on TV and continue to get rewarded for it with bigger contribution deals. The cycle then feeds off itself, because with more people saying bigoted things, there is more of a need to send out other people and contributors to cut down the nonsense. Rather than shoveling this garbage into the atmosphere and then sending out the cleanup crew, perhaps CNN could skip the first step.
CNN is not the only offender in this arena. Many stations have signed former politicians; it’s good to get expertise. But that’s not what CNN is getting when they give a platform to people like Duffy and Santorum. Duffy was never a particularly important member — one of his more famous projects was a push to end endangered protections for grey wolves. Furthermore, one can question Santorum’s political chops; his Senatorial race in 2006 ended with the 25th worst defeat by an incumbent senator in the history of the institution.
The endless outrage cycles ought to end. President Donald Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the room, but still leaves space for outrage, and the American people deserve better than that. TV journalism was left a sparkling legacy by journalists like Edward Murrow and Michigan’s own Mike Wallace. Returning to their craft and practice will take more than firing the Duffys and Santorums of the world, but it’s a damn good start.
Anik Joshi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.